To this day, 1988’s Akira is worshipped as one of the best anime features in history. And, frankly, this reviewer has no comprehension as to why the film continually receives such praise. Scripted and directed by Katsuhiro Ôtomo who adapted his own manga series, Akira is a super-violent epic which borrows liberally (if unimaginatively) from Mad Max 2, Blade Runner, Japanese disaster movies and the works of science fiction writer Alfred Bester. The product is the equivalent of the dullest of all computer games. At best, it’s a brisk synopsis of over twenty volumes of manga. At worst, it’s a slow-paced train wreck devoid of energy or anything of interest. A lot of people claim Akira has thought-provoking messages and a deeper meaning. While that’s all well and good, the makers of Akira failed to provide something of substance to engage viewers. Where are the likeable characters or the engaging concepts? Where are the positive elements in general that can allow one to like a movie?
Set in 2019, Akira takes place 21 years after World War III when the city of Tokyo was decimated by an atomic bomb. Built on the ashes of its predecessor, Neo-Tokyo is a booming metropolis filled with unsavoury denizens. When night falls, collections of biker gangs take to the streets in order to participate in territorial motorcycle jousting. Meanwhile, there are a group of revolutionaries trying to overthrow the oppressive government. The final part of the story concerns the government, who are performing experiments with a mysterious invention known as “Akira”. Akira is part bomb and part God, and, when it’s injected into a human being, that person is endowed with apocalyptic strength.
Akira is comprised of roughly 160,000 cells of animation. Admittedly, the colour design is quite spectacular, from the brightness of Neo-Tokyo to the damp darkness of the sewer. However, while the animation is decent, it’s far from great. Each frame bursts with a lot of detailed artistry, but the movement is jerky and jumpy to a distracting degree. It’s easy to see where the frames have been linked. Watching the movie is the equivalent of playing an action game on a lethargic computer. Anime fans may complain that Disney movies are for the masses, but at least Disney animation is more smooth and fluid. Even Disney releases from the ’40s and ’50s were blessed with superior craftsmanship. On the bright side, Akira benefits from an exceptional soundtrack, and there are at least a few note-worthy set-pieces in amidst the moments of abject boredom.
The crucial problem with Akira is the narrative, which was condensed from over 2000 pages of manga. As a result of rushing from plot point to plot point, the movie comes across as an absolute mess with very superficial, boring characters and with a distinct lack of substance. Character motivations also seem at the convenience of the plot – at no point do the characters come into their own, and only rarely can we understand precisely why they do the things that they do. In fact, as a direct consequence of this, character identification can be difficult. Everything seems haphazard here; thrown together at random from various bits and pieces of stock sci-fi concepts with little coherency. There is an underlying moral here about mankind’s lust for power, but it never emerges from the incoherent spectacle of destruction and violence. Dedicated Akira fans will probably retort “stick to dumb American action movies, then“, but at least American action movies usually fulfil the fundamental movie requirements of plot coherency and clear motivations.
Some movie enthusiasts have completely immersed themselves into anime as both an art form and a film genre, while others simply “don’t get it” or assume that anime is simply a children’s medium. This reviewer falls into neither of those categories. As an avid film-watcher, this reviewer loves good movies whether they’re live-action or animated. For good anime, see the exceptional works of Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away). Yet, the appeal of Akira is bewildering – the animation is jumpy, and the story proceeds without coherency or logic. People may retort “read the manga to understand it better“, but this denotes a crucial failing on the part of Akira‘s writer-director Katsuhiro Ôtomo since the film should be able to stand on its own. Why should a viewer have to conduct hours of additional homework in order to completely understand the film? It doesn’t help that the movie itself is inherently uninteresting. For some reason, people still claim this is the be-all and end-all of the Japanese animation industry. Let’s be grateful that it’s not, and that there are far better instances of anime out there.